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Urban elephants ply Bangkok streets in search of tourist dollars

by Staff Writers
Bangkok (AFP) Feb 24, 2009
A drunken tourist staggers about as he repeatedly drops his bags of elephant feed on Bangkok's Soi Cowboy boulevard.

Beneath the neon lights advertising Thailand's bars and bargirls, the man teases the two-year-old elephant as the beast tries to coax a few sugarcane snacks from his shaking hands.

Finally the distressed elephant lets out a cry and her handlers pull her down the street to the next group of paying tourists.

"They get beaten because they're tired, they don't want to walk, it's one o'clock in the morning," said Soraida Salwala who runs a charity to rescue elephants such as this one.

Elephants first arrived in Thailand's cities about 40 years ago when the Tourism Authority of Thailand brought a number of them to Bangkok for an exhibition to attract visitors to the kingdom.

Once the elephant owners realised their money-making potential, they started coming to the cities more often.

In 1993 there were fewer than ten elephants on Bangkok's streets. Now, says Soraida, about 100 regularly come to Bangkok, and more than 1,000 are used for profit in cities nationwide.

The demand is so great that elephants are also smuggled in from abroad.

A report released by wildlife charity TRAFFIC last month revealed that more than 250 live animals had been smuggled from neighbouring Myanmar in the past decade, in contravention of national and international laws.

"Females and juvenile elephants are particularly targeted to supply the demand from the tourism industry in Thailand," said Chris Shepherd, senior programme officer with TRAFFIC.

Soraida, who set up Thailand's Friends of the Asian Elephant (FOAE) in 1993, said there are now only 4,600 wild and captive elephants left in Thailand, compared to some 40,000 50 years ago.

Car fumes and narrow streets often leave the elephants with eye callouses and tuberculosis and make them vulnerable to leg injuries, said Soraida, who treats some of the animals at an elephant hospital she founded in northern Lampang province.

The owners, mainly from Thailand's impoverished northeast, defend their actions as necessary for their survival.

Muang Salangam, 59, from northeast Surin province, says his 29-year-old elephant "Nam-whan" earns him up to 1,000 baht (29 US dollars) walking 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) a day.

That compares favourably to the average monthly salary in factories of 7,329 baht per month (200 dollars) in the last quarter of 2007, according to the National Statistical Office.

"I have to bring my elephant to Bangkok because I have no money at home," Muang told AFP at his campsite behind a car park off a main Bangkok highway.

"Some people condemn me for bringing my elephant to Bangkok but I tell them if we stay there, we and the elephants will starve. I tell them there's no food over there, it's difficult."

Soraida bemoans a lack of government support in dealing with the problem.

TRAFFIC said that despite its findings on the Myanmar border, no cross-border trade of live elephants had been reported to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species by either Myanmar or Thailand.

More than a dozen laws exist in Thailand for prosecuting elephant handlers, know as mahouts, in legislative areas as varied as transportation and public health, said Soraida.

But though a police task force set up in 2006 periodically sweeps the streets for elephants, they continue to ply the tourist trade.

Two government projects that aimed to take elephants back to the countryside have also failed, with one in 2002 that encouraged elephants to work as scouts in national parks canned due to a lack of funding.

Another project in 2006 failed to encourage mahouts to return to Surin province with the offer of a monthly wage of 12,000 baht because, Soraida said, the handlers rent the elephants and so would not receive the money themselves.

She is not hopeful change will come but vowed to continue her fight to rid the urban streets of elephants.

"The government doesn't really care," she said. "But we cannot have them as beggars on the road."

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